Two Minute Game Crit – Rabbit Rush

 

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Transcript:

If you head over to Google right now and run a search for Rabbit Rush you’ll find… absolutely nothing, because it’s no longer available. But if it were available, you’d find one of the most interesting games you’d ever play.

It goes like this.

[Titles]

Rabbitville is overpopulated, and it’s your job to command its excess rabbits and conquer neighbouring towns. It’s very simple – click on the rabbits here then drag to a nearby building, and you see them moving. They fill up the building and it’s yours. If the building is occupied by another town’s rabbits, send more of your own to take it over.

Then onto the next one, and the next one. It’s so gloriously compulsive. The glowing lights, the sounds, the cheer of your rabbits when they take a house, the flare when you grab a power-up. It entrances you as you spread your little empire.

But before long, someone sends you a message – “hey how’s it going” – and they say, click on the carrot in the store for a quick hack.

Once you do, the game breaks and you exit into this eerie arcade. You find these notes scattered around from a dear friend you keep missing, and outside, a line of shops light up as you pass – “all that you see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

What follows is a dream sequence based around different forms of media – some are types of games, others are types of photography or literature, and so on. As you cycle through these different scenarios, you learn more about your relationship with your missing friend, as the world repeats and degrades. Every now and again you return to the arcade game, Rabbit Rush, to find some solace, but always it’s more warped, more traumatic.

It’s only a short game but it’s so full of joy, sadness, hope, and paranoia. Each transition from one media form to the next carries such a complexity of emotion.

I love this game for how it uses the form of each sequence to convey a narrative of self-discovery and the dangers of retreating into nostalgic dreams of the past.


 

Video Description: Continue reading

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Souls Without Darkness

fiddler-on-a-roof-image

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Following the March release of Dark Souls 3: Die Dark Souls Die, the table has again been set with discussions on how an easy mode would attract onlookers to finally dig in. This is an old discussion at this point and it’s worth considering why it resurfaces by coming from a place of forlornness, from the quiet wishes of a scattering of people who want to enjoy something they can’t—from reactions to wistfulness rather than manifestos, from tweets not petitions.

So Cameron Kunzelman wrote an interesting piece on how the addition of an easy mode would incite him to give Dark Souls another stab. While he finds it to be a fascinating study, he lacks the patience to dedicate his time to a game which routinely sends players back to do it again.

I don’t know if you can quite call his favouring an easy mode an argument, but he positions it in opposition to the pro-Dark Souls coven of Matt Lees, Chris Franklin and Adam Smith. These readings cover the gist of what attracts people to its difficulty: Smith denies the inaccessibility of Dark Souls is necessarily a negative trait; Lee tells of how our intrigue would wither were patience not a prerequisite; Franklin focuses on the difficulty and its subsequent systems as existential to the text. Each is worth your time.

As the topic is divisive, I want to stress what’s at stake when we talk about the ramifications of a hypothetical Dark Souls easy mode:

Nothing. Nothing is at stake for those who currently enjoy Dark Souls, who have already done it and gotten theirs and remember it fondly. Realistically I don’t believe anything will come from a few people saying in increasingly louder and better reasoned manners how an easy mode would improve the experience, but even if From Software decide to patch one into Dark Souls 1, it would not besmirch your memory of the Capra Demon. What’s more, for critics such as myself who play up the existential argument and acquiesce to the developers as designers of their own game, were they to instil an easy mode in a future instalment, we would be some mad bloody hypocrits to then turn about and say it’s antithetical to the point. That easy-moded sequel may not be the Dark Souls we knew and loved, but no Dark Souls, not 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6, could ever be.

On the other hand, for those who have yet to enjoy a Dark Souls, what’s at stake is the possibility of finally enjoying a Dark Souls. If no easy mode ever came about, they would continue to live with nothing being changed. I suspect they would find a way to survive.

With this now said, bear in mind that discussion of an easy mode is a thought experiment, not an asteroid. What arises from it is usually a conversation on the particular textual analysis of Dark Souls, and the general role of mechanics and systems within narrative frameworks.

So while the prospect is not dangerous, it’s easy to view it as a threat for reasons of sentimentality. (There is also a troupe which feels threatened by how it would dilute the pretend aristocracy of folks who have finished a videogame, which is a petulant viewpoint and another issue entirely.) Much of that sentimentality is irrational but human and I find it hard to find too great a fault in it. My feelings are complicated, since I think it would be great if Kunzelman could enjoy Dark Souls like I have, but at the same time I agree with Smith that not everything needs to be for everyone, and I agree with Lees and Franklin that much of what puts Kunzelman off the series is intrinsic to what makes it provocative.

Kunzelman responds to Lees and Franklin by describing a mode where baddies take fewer hits but everything else is more or less the same—in essence, a version where players die a lot less. What he seeks is an abbreviation of the routine of dying and retrying, to expedite passage past monsters before they grow too familiar, to see its famed architecture and read lore at a leisurely pace. Whereas the Dark Souls routine for most fans means to waste and wallow and regather and triumph, he wishes to skip straight to the triumph. It’s a destination without the epiphany, and maybe it’s a blindspot in what he hopes to enjoy, or maybe he already sees what’s to be gotten from the journey and is confident of his disinterest in it. To him, nothing is gained by dying and being reborn, so there’s nothing in his easier version incomparable to the experiences of those who, as he rightfully says, have bought into how it currently is.

There are many ways to read into this. A common thread in discussions about hard videogames is that those who dislike the game do so by a measure of a senseless, inarticulable yardstick of skill, where players with enough of this mystical attribute are good and players with too little are bad. I interpret Kunzelman’s insights as distinguished instead by a matter of attitude. Excluding the bollocks aristocracy, I don’t think anyone will find it controversial for me to say Dark Souls’ difficulty is largely psychological, much in the same way that Project Zero’s scariness is psychological. It’s a difficulty born out of your nervousness and recklessness, but where those who act cautiously and learn to adapt get by easily enough. Compare this to something like Trauma Center which demands an impossible standard of highly precise and rapid inputs in order to do something as basic as brain surgery.

This, for me, makes Kunzelman’s insight noteworthy as his appreciation of Dark Souls leaps over its characteristic mentality. It suggests affection for a story composed of tidbits and residue, excluding as irrelevant the significance of these elements in context of the whole. He’s not interested in the whole, just the tidbits.

What first impressed me about this position was how convincing it was, even as a response to fans for whom this approach can easily seem wrongheaded. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen games I have zero interest in playing but whose fiction and worlds I find attractive—I’ve always been curious about the lore of Gears of War but can’t stand to play it. It seems sacrilegious to target Dark Souls with that same half-apathetic, half-curious attitude because of my sentimentality towards it especially as a cohesive whole; I recognize this reaction as silly, born out of aversion to entertain the irrelevancy of what I love about this series. Why is Dark Souls so personal? Why do I exempt it from cherry-picked analyses?

I believe it’s because of the same reason so many people want it to have an easy mode. Because Dark Souls is special. It is not coincidence that of the billion games with variable difficulty levels, few attract the attention and analysis Matt Lees describes. It is not a coincidence that of the fewer games without variable difficulty levels, people seldom clamour for the introduction of a mode that would make it accessible to newer or less skilled players. The discussion focuses on Dark Souls instead of Super Mario Bros because Dark Souls inhabits a distinct cultural myth. Even though Super Mario Bros is a much harder game, even though it requires just as much repetition albeit with less reward, and higher and more precise demands of player skill to complete, it’s culturally placed not as a difficult game but as a ubiquitously nostalgic lark.

Dark Souls however is cursed by its projection of a sense of difficulty, despite how it mitigates that conceit through a robust system of player co-operation and in-game messages, and which fans gleefully diffuse through community wikis, online conversation and ten thousand or so Top Tips listicles. While this sense of difficulty is on the most part a fabrication—an aspect of its social fiction—it is pivotal to its allure as a cultural text.

Which brings me to The Great Gatsby. In 2011, on hearing that a simplified version of the novel was entering the US school curriculum, Roger Ebert demolished the wretched incarnation:

The first is: There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

Despite the phenomenon of talking about a game’s language in terms of its verbs—jump, shoot, run, solve—there is still not much an appreciation for play as prose. Fundamental to the experience of playing is that it intimately and unavoidably conveys narrative through the sensation and psychological effect of its moment. No-one cared about the narrated story of Thomas Was Alone, whereas everyone praised how the character interactions conveyed a message of community and relationship.

Kunzelman wants to play Dark Souls without having to go through the burden of playing it. And yet, he wants to play it. Reading the wikis and watching the lore videos and Let’s Plays isn’t enough, it’s not the same as playing a game first hand, of experiencing that embodiment and bathing in its prose. And for we who have bought in, this is entirely why there is no point in “playing” Dark Souls unless you actually play it. Why it would lose all intonation about time and temporality. Why it would decimate its esprit de corpse (which in hindsight is what I wished I had titled that piece).

His assurance that for what he wants to get out of it an easy mode would affect no ontological change is the crux of Kunzelman’s article and the reason why I feel, however ridiculously, like Tevye the Dairyman. My summaries of Lees’ and Franklin’s videos should not be thought adequate representations of their humour and earnestness, nor my rhetoric the conviction of Kunzelman’s article. Likewise, a summary of Dark Souls stripped of its narrative backbone, which fronts leisure and abandons hostility, is not Dark Souls. It is irrevocably something different, like a Fiddler on the Roof where everything works out in the end, a Ghost in the Shell movie about America, or a Gaeltacht where everyone speaks English. More accessible to some, perhaps, but doubtlessly misshapen. If all you’re looking for is a film with songs or plastic tourism, you may be satisfied with it.

But I wonder, if the boulders were inconsequential and the giant hurling them friendly, if Sen’s Fortress were Sen’s Creche, would this resemble the Lordran that intruiged you? Would the impact of its discovery be undiminished? Would you still envy the accomplishment of your friend atop the ramparts?

Embassytown: Before the humans came we didn’t speak

Embassytown: Before the humans came we didn't speak

Artwork by Crush

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You should first know two things about China Miéville’s Embassytown. One: it has a pullquote on the front cover from Ursula K. Le Guin branding it as “a fully achieved work of art”. Two: the back cover summary so confused me that I fled to the nearest young adult fiction, which happened at the time to be Railsea, as I was cornered by a small army of Miévilles as if in ultimatum.

Keep those in mind when I say, to talk about the structure of Embassytown is to juggle sand. It’s a wonderful, fascinating, elusive beast, in part because of a thematic richness to which I can’t do justice here, and in part because of its structural metacommentary on left-wing politics in colonial states, to which I can. It’s mainly elusive because of what the end of Embassytown says about the start of Embassytown. And since this is a book interested in describing the breach of a world-shattering status quo change, it’s elusive because in the fuzzy emotional space of newfound self-awareness, my mind four hundred pages ago is estranged to my mind now. Continue reading

On “If you love games you should refuse to be called a gamer”

Earlier today Simon Parkin wrote a piece for The New Statesman denouncing the word “gamer” and the concept of the gaming community. I agree with his conclusion that we should stop using the term, so I find the sentiment of the piece to be commendable. In getting there, however, Parkin shares some thoughts that I feel are worth catching and reflecting on, as I suspect there’s a little bit going on behind the scenes that benefits neither his argument nor the specific mentality advocated.

I’ll start with the last one, as it’s the most direct claim he makes and it’s only really incidental to the gist of his argument, but it’s one I fiercely oppose. This notion that games are “the great contemporary leveller”, as he puts it, where everyone exists on an equal ground, is not an original thought. It’s long since been incorporated into the inside cultural narrative of the medium that games offer treasures and possibilities only a hair’s breadth from the trials one might face daily. It inspires nostalgia and pride and a sense of protectiveness bordering zealotry. Sharp advertisers have ran with it, spreading the concept that no matter who you are or where you are, you can be the hero.

It’s nothing but a romantic daydream, a very successful fiction that many critics now struggle to dispel from two directions: that games on an individual basis are inherently political, and that games on a general basis tend towards inaccessibility. For the first, fans of GTAV and Hotline Miami 2 rebel at the accusation, at the very thought, that their beloved game might carry a message, and that this message might be hazardous to the social well-being of some of its players. Games as forms of expression, as things carrying along and preserving the cultural baggage of the creators, even by accident, is as if a brand new concept to the vast majority of people. Anecdotally, I’ve found comparatively few people even outside of games who consider the latest movie or comic as a cultural text. That games are “just games” is an enormously difficult attitude to penetrate, in and of itself, never mind appending on the idea that the accidental baggage of a game might make it a nasty piece of work.

So when I say this, bear in mind that many messages can make a game inaccessible to many people, precluding them from enjoying it on the simple basis of its nature. The existence and necessity of trigger warnings are evidence enough, although less prolific, more conventional sorts are abundant. Remember, for instance, those people who protested that homosexuality was included in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, who were so outraged they couldn’t even play it. If politics in involved, and politics is always involved, a game’s narrative will likely be inaccessible to someone.*

Further to this, a game might be inaccessible to players by its language, the level of skill needed to manipulate and progress through its gameplay systems, the technicalities of ability it asks of the player (eg. I have trouble with platforming mechanics, someone else might have trouble with shooting mechanics, another person might have trouble navigating in a first-person perspective). There might be a level of knowledge of videogame conventions expected of the player, which excludes players new to the medium or genre. Then there’s the platform it’s on, the internet requirements it mandates, the technology it needs to run adequately, and the costs of all these things and more. Then there’s the tangible market availability of the game, the place where someone can go to buy it. There’s also the buttons it might require the player to be able to press or the speed they need to be input, which can be a very real physical obstacle to players for all sorts of reasons. And there’s further obstacles in the auditory and visual expectations of the player’s capacity – there’s very few videogames for those sight-impaired, colour-blind people might struggle with colour conventions widespread through the medium, and sound can be a very important component for progression in some games. And so on.

In claiming games as an equal-opportunity space, Parkin assumes everybody is homogeneous in ability and context – ironic given his earlier railing against that precept.**

Would that his internalization of common gaming community wisdom ended there, but I suspect there’s something more in his denouncement of the term “gamer”, just a hint suggesting a wound needing tending to.

I agree with Parkin that “gamer” needs to go, that it’s used to categorize people and exclude them from the treehouse. “Gamer” is a response to the pressure that people need to be on the inside of the treehouse to legitimize anything they say. He refers to the responses to Anita Sarkeesian, which is a great example for this exact phenomenon: early in the course of Tropes vs Women in Video Games it was a common criticism, framed as concern, that Sarkeesian might not be best suited to critique games because she’s not on the inside (note that at that point in time, it was assumed she was an outsider). Later on, only a few months ago, word hit the web that she had herself denied being a gamer some years prior, reviving the same ‘concern’ and scorn at her daring.

It’s worth repeating that “gamer” is the result of standards swollen by tradition, it’s a way of filtering out people and their opinions by measure of some arbitrary identity criteria, and not according to the sophistication of their arguments. I’d hazard that Parkin’s on the money in identifying the medium’s youth and the stereotype of its hobbyists’ as causes for their insularity. Parkin suggests this defensiveness is protected and demarcated by something called the “gaming community”, that this term is synonymous with “gamer” in their usage as banishing tactics. By virtue of the external consensus that the community is homogeneous (composed only of your straight white males), a belief out of tune with the reality of videogame players’ diversities, he says the concept of the community needs to die.

If the idea of the gaming community is intrinsically linked to the exclusivity of the gamer label, perhaps the world would be better off without it. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. I see “gaming community” as a parallel to the concept of gaming culture, that there are values and ideas and norms largely propagated as sets within the medium as a sphere for meanings and expressions. I see people as involved in that sphere by virtue of their presence, just as we soak in the values and ideas and norms dominant in our physical locale. (Having been yea long in Ireland, I have absorbed within my subconsciousness a lot of Irish culture – you say “thank you” to the bus driver, beans on toast are normal, etc.; the same principle is true for videogames.) I know there are quite a few people who would prefer to do away with the concept of gaming culture, too, but I can’t shake my conception of it as a particular cultural subset, as something that exists as a social and political structure. Even if its identifiability is ambiguous and fluid just like any other culture, still it is a thing within the world. And it’s incredibly useful as a structure through which to frame various phenomena and events centric to the medium and industry of videogames, although perhaps this is my laziness speaking as I clutch to the ease of the shorthand.

This said, I make no attempt to beautify the gaming community. As it exists, much as the culture exists, it is more often than not a putrification of lost childhoods and romanticized evil. But I’m not sure if pretending it doesn’t exist solves that, or if it would merely serve to hush up talk of it and delude us that no problem persists. Simply saying “the word gamer needs to die” is not enough to absolve ourselves of the habits by which we say it, nor ease away the cultural pressure that birthed it in the first place. Parkin still sways to it – he feels the need to quality Samantha Allen as “herself an ardent game player”, as if that’s relevant in justifying her perspective that the VGAs entertained transphobia.

The solution isn’t simply to stop saying a word, it’s to shift one’s whole mentality to be more inclusive. It means accepting a games-related post on a non-gaming blog as perhaps valuable for its insights into games, and not giving out that the author is ‘ill-informed’ on the ins-and-outs of the industry. It means conceding the point that mainstream games criticism is still an unattained goal, that while Critical Distance and similar sources provide much needed life in the right direction, the work you and I do is still comparatively niche and hidden. Very importantly, it means no longer romanticizing the medium. If ditching the term “gamer” is at least a starting point, grand, but we need to be sure we’re not just replacing it with the word “player”.***

___________________

*This is not to say we should make all games excessively bland to avoid upsetting anyone, nor that all games are exonerated of responsibility because narrative is unavoidable. Which are often arguments taken away by people who only want to protect games as they are. All I’m saying is, first thing’s first, we need to accept the premise that games carry meaning.
**It’s also unfortunate that he identifies Mattie Brice by her labels on the very same day she posted this on her site. Subject to bad timing.
***I’ve found “people” to be a good substitute in every context bar one, to mean the exact same thing I wanted to get at without presenting the subject as a club or dependant on self-identity. The one exception is when I want to refer pejoratively to the exclusionary self-identity that “gamer” culturally signifies. That is all it’s really good for.